No one could accuse David Torn
of grinding out guitar records lately, but 30
years ago it was a different story. Beginning
in 1985 with Best Laid Plans, Torn ripped
through six groundbreaking, guitar-heavy
releases in one decade. Since 1996’s What
Means Solid Traveller, however, the master
of ambient looping and fuzz-drenched,
Eastern-inflected soloing has been flying
under the guitar-hero radar.
It is not that the sonic pioneer has been
idle. In the interim, he has lent his distinctive
guitar work to a Who’s Who of creative
musicians, including David Bowie,
k.d. lang, John Legend, Tori Amos, David
Sylvian, and Meshell Ndegeocello, as well
as producing records for Jeff Beck and
Tim Berne. Torn sandwiched those gigs
in between soundtrack work on films like
Friday Night Lights, The Big Lebowski, Traffic,
and Three Kings, as well as his Grammywinning
score for The Order.
There have been some collaborative
stealth releases over the years with Splattercell
and Prezens, but Torn the guitar hero
is finally back with Only Sky [ECM], and it
is everything fans of the whammy (bar and
pedal)-wielding wizard could hope for: a
completely solo effort that showcases the
innovative loops and go-for-broke soloing
that place him on guitar Olympus. Read on,
as the wizard reveals some of his secrets.
Why do a solo record this time?
It started when I got the Avid Pro Tools
+ Eleven Rack. I was doing early morning
sessions in my studio just improvising songs.
I would find two chords or a three-note
melody, do the improv, and record it straight
down. If I didn’t like it, I might do another
one. I had a bunch of pieces for my TED
Talk—one, called “Only Sky,” became the
title song on the new record. But, when I
got there, I changed my mind; I just went
out and improvised. That made me think
I should keep improvising—there’s something
satisfying about it. I decided it didn’t
always have to be a song format. For this
record, some pieces are a bit song-like and
the rest are totally improvised.
Was editing or overdubbing involved?
I edited some of the pieces. If I had to
go pee, I just let the loops run [laughs]. I’d
run to the bathroom and then come back
and start where I left off. After 35 minutes
of playing, I would get offstage, but
leave the loops going. There were some
processors running that produced sounds
on their own. I’d start a really good piece,
and then I’d do something dumb like fall
down. I’d try to find a natural place to begin
again, and then edit it together. In the mix,
I would edit all the crap out. The music
was recorded live in stereo, so there was
not a lot of other fixing that could be done.
Where did you record?
Some of it was at EMPAC [Curtis R.
Priem Experimental Media and Performing
Arts Center in Troy, New York] at Renssalaer
Polytechnic Institute. It’s a 1,500-seat
theater with 50-foot ceilings. The room is set
up with microphone cabling and remotely
movable mics. I used some mics that were
close to the cabinets, another two mics far
out to the sides, two pairs of stereo mics in
front of the stage about 15 or 20 feet into the audience, and two big room mics hanging
from the balcony that were super wide.
Some other pieces were recorded at home,
and the challenge of the mix was to blend
them with the ones recorded at EMPAC.
Did you try to reproduce the EMPAC
I just used my ear to get close to it. It
was about capturing the coloration of the
room, which was quite a bit warmer than
my original home recordings. EMPAC is like
playing into a beautiful cushion that doesn’t
What did you use in your studio to reproduce
I have a couple of custom reverb patches
I did in Native Instruments Reaktor. I might
have used some digital EQ to empty out the
midrange in certain places to make sure the
overall sound was warmly reverberant.
Do you use reverb in your rig as well, or
is that all delay?
I have a Lexicon PCM80. I programmed
what I believe was the first commercially
available version of what people now call
“Shimmer.” I started with the first PCM70.
I bring my own reverb with me, but there
are certain rooms that enhance every sound.
How did you get the live glitching guitar
effects on the record?
All the glitching, stuttering stuff is done
with the original Hexe reVolver pedal.
Are you controlling the pitch with an
I was following the reVolver with a Digi-
Tech DT Whammy Pedal. It let me shift the
pitch of those short reVolver loops, but not
the length. I shifted them in a musical way
while I was playing and transposed in my
head as I went. If you hear a loop length
being altered and there’s a lot of stuttering
within the loop, it could be the Gibson
Echoplex Digital Pro. I use it to build new
rhythmic figures by using its insert and multiply
functions. The crazy part is that the
reVolver feeds into the EDP, and I make it
worse because everything in my rack can be
sent to everything else [Laughs].
In some places it sounds like you are
using the self-oscillating feature of your
signature Trombetta Tornita! fuzz.
It is trial and error; sometimes you don’t
get it right and you have to deal with it. I set
it up so I have an idea of the pitch range. To
play Theremin-like melodies, I need to know
where my top and bottom notes are. There
is also a PCM 42 sound where I am changing
the pitch, the length of the loop, and also
have a square wave LFO going. I’ll change the
pitch and length with my foot, and change the
speed of the LFO with my hand until I like it.
Sometimes I’ll change the depth of the LFO
at the same time—there are many planned
accidents and manipulations thereof.
How did you sonically separate the loops
from the improvisations over them?
I had a Fryette Sig:X head in the middle as
my dry amp, which isn’t actually totally dry.
I was using the THD Hot Plate Attenuator, which would send the signal to my rack mixer
for my rack effects, and then to a Fryette
Two/Fifty/Two stereo power amp that fed a
Fryette Deliverance cab on one side of the
stage. On the opposite side I had a Bogner
Goldfinger 2x12. In the middle was a Bob
Burt 2x12 custom pine, V-front cabinet, with
two old Celestion Blues in it.
Which guitars did you use?
I used the pink Ronin Mirari for all the
EMPAC material. At home, I used my D’Pergo
Strat-style on one track, my Koll Tornado
on one track, and I’m pretty sure I used the
Teuffel Niwa also.
Is that just amp overdrive on “I Could
Almost See the Room?”
I was turning an Empress Effects Compressor
on and off. I also used the Chase
Bliss Audio Warped Vinyl. It’s a vibrato pedal
with an analog signal and a digital controller
attached to the back. You can control it
with LFOs or the envelope of your attack. I
was pushing the amp with it, even when I
wasn’t using any pitch changing. Anything
that sounds like a chorus on the guitar would
be that. I used a Caroline Guitar Company
Kilobyte delay on the dry amp. The pedal
has a momentary switch on it to make it go
into wild self-oscillation.
Is that where the octave sound on that
tune comes from?
No, that’s my Lexicon, unless it’s on the
direct guitar sound, and then it’s a Whammy
pedal. The reverbs have something more complicated
than just an octave up. It’s actually
a series of stereo delay lines with octaves
being modulated at different speeds, in different
amounts on each side mixed into a
very huge reverb.
There’s a great distortion sound on
“Reaching Sparely, Barely Fraught.”
It was probably the Trombetta Mini-Bone.
That track was actually recorded with the
Kemper Profiler in my studio.
Are you using an auto filter on “Only Sky?”
There’s a kind of envelope-driven filter
from the Kemper that’s only on the reverb.
The Kemper has all these envelope driven
effects. There’s a certain set of sonic compromises
I accept from digital modeling,
so I can play at the volume I want at four
in the morning. The main compromise is
a lack of animation and multi-dimensionality
in the sound and feel. Kemper is the
best modeler I’ve had, yet I’m always looking
for things to make it feel more random,
so I can respond to it.
I did a session that could become a groovy
pop record. It’s a Celtic-sounding woman
singer, with very dark lyrics, very simple
drum programming, and a few simple, yet
charming, synth patches. I fill in everything
else. They seemed to like the idea of black
metal guitar. I used my new Basic Audio Fuzz
Mutant pedal and the Fryette Power Station
attenuator with my Fryette Deliverance amp.
It sounded so damn good I couldn’t even tell
if I was playing well or not!